Yadier Molina, the three time all-star catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals signed a five-year extension worth $75 million set to begin in 2013, with a mutual option for 2018. He has a no trade clause as well. Molina will finish out his current contract this season in which he is being paid $7 million. The Cardinals seemed to become very eager to get this deal done now, after it was announced last week by Molina’s agent, Melvin Roman, that there would be no discussions during the regular season. That set the tone for negotiations to re-open and have been fluid since.
As of yesterday, there were a few questions unanswered about the contract. First, we only had a range of salary which was between $70 & $75 million over the five years. It was also unknown at the time whether his current deal would be torn up and the five years would begin in 2012. We now have the answer those questions.
One question that may take some time to confirm is the structure of the deal. Will it be a flat $15 million each season, start on the lower end and increase as the seasons go on, or will it work like New York Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez’s salary which peaked in the middle and decreases as it ends. The answer to this question is not necessary for the evaluation of the contract terms, but I will revisit it at the end of the column.
First, it is appropriate to look at Molina’s recent history. Below are his stats for the last four seasons.
When we look at numbers we try to find seasons that are outliers in comparison to the rest. I highlighted some stats that don’t fit with the others. The first thing I notice is the major uptick in HR, SLG, OPS and ISO for 2011. Sure, some players get stronger as they get older but hitting more HR than he did in 2009 and 2010 combined may mean slightly less HR in 2012 and forward. His isolated power (ISO) numbers from 2008 – 2010 confirm this possibility. His BABIP has hovered around .309 – .311 since 2008 except a big drop in 2010. This attributed to an off-year in 2010 in terms of OBP. His fielding number was way down for 2011. I mentioned yesterday that he threw out only 29.2% of attempted base stealers in 2011. However, not many teams try to run on him, so in the end he still allows fewer runs than most catchers. So, is 2010 the outlier or 2011? Seems that there is a little of both, but I suspect 2010 is more an aberation than 2011.
This means the Cardinals are probably going to get the catcher who is a mix of what we saw in ’08, ’09 and ’11. I do not think that he is going to beat the numbers he established in 2011 or even duplicate them. Everyone should temper those expectations for this season and moving forward. One thing of note, while Molina does get on base at a good clip, it is not because he walks a lot. In fact, after peaking in walk rate at 9.2% in 2009 he has seen year over year declines. If he has another season where the ball doesn’t drop as much like 2010 (see BABIP), his average and OBP will suffer.
Next we’ll take a look at the total value of the contract in terms of Molina’s expected performance. What does he need to accomplish in terms of WAR over the 5 seasons beginning in 2013? Below is a breakeven analysis.
In 2011, Molina’s 4.7 WAR equated to $21.2 million in performance value per FanGraphs. This is $4.5 million per 1 WAR. To get to the value for 2013, I simply added 5% on top of 2011 and then another 5% on top of the 2012 value and rounded up slightly to $5 million per 1 WAR. Each subsequent season shows another 5% increase. Adding across gives us 5 total WAR equaling $27.63 million. We take the total value of the contract, $75 million and divide it by 27.63, then multiply the result by 5 and get 13.57 WAR. This is the total WAR that Molina must produce over the five seasons in order for the Cardinals to recuperate the contract value in accordance with Molina’s performance. Anything above the figure is a positive investment, anything below is a negative investment.
We now go back to Molina’s WAR values over the last few seasons and see it has flucuated from a low of 3 to a high of 4.7. According to projections supplied by Bill James and using the simple WAR calculator Molina will record somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5 – 4.0 WAR in 2012 depending on if I rated him with exceptional fielding or very good fielding. We can give him the benefit of the doubt and go with exceptional assuming he will get back to the caught stealing percentage we are accustomed to seeing from him. From there, I came up with a conservative estimation of the stats and ran them through the WAR calculator to see how Molina may fare over the duration of the contract beginning in 2013.
I used the following ratios. Molina has averaged 3.7 plate appearances per game for his career. He has a career walk rate of 7.2% and strikeout rate of 8.5%. I kept the BABIP stable at .300 as it is too difficult to speculate. I took away one home run for each season. Please remember to look at his seasons prior to 2011 before you bang me for what I feel is an anticipated drop. I cannot say that he will still be exceptional behind the plate by 2013, but 2 on a scale of 1 to 7 is still much better than average. By 2016 he will still be a little better than average. He is slow and that is not going to change.
The good news is that even with this fairly conservative estimation, Molina will total more than the breakeven number of 13.57 WAR we came up with earlier. I wouldn’t doubt if he is able to reach 14.5 – 15.0 WAR over the course of the extension. His durability is what is going to allow him to reach these numbers. Plate appearances and games played play a large part in how everything else coorelates. If he misses a good part of a season there could be trouble. For example, if he has a season where he plays in 81 games (half a season) and we keep the proportions the same, we get a WAR of 1.5. It makes a big difference.
I want to touch briefly on the structuring of the deal. It has not been given to us yet, but it matters to the Cardinals if they are paying him a flat $15 million per season during the five years, or if they are scaling up from say $12 million, or scaling down from $18 million. The Cardinals should want to match his performance value to the salary. He will undeniably perform better at the front end of the contract, so they should want to pay him more at the start as I mentioned the Yankees do with A-Rod. Molina may not want it that way and it is definitely part of the negotiation process so we will see. In my opinion, more teams should try this approach with their players if they can. It allows them to be able to pay other players who will be performing at higher levels at the end of said contract.
I’ll sum up Molina’s contract like this. It was a necessity for the Cardinals to do something now if they wanted to hold onto him. It is obvious that they did. It is also obvious that Molina and his agent told them they would pursue this type of figure in the open market, and the Cardinals probably felt like they did not want to get into that scenario again. In their mind, Molina is a more intrigal piece of the team than his buddy Albert Pujols would be, at least in terms of the production value. So the extension is warranted and the Cardinals should get a return on their investment based on my conservative estimates which includes some wiggle room.
*Post updated – 3/1/12 at 4:27 PM with contract details. The structure is still not completely known, but expectations are that it is going to be split evenly over the five seasons.